Buzzcocks Skids Penetration and Guests
Royal Albert Hall, London
June 21st 2019
Phil Ross and Louder Than War photographer Svenja Block mull the Buzzcocks journey to the Royal Albert Hall that started over 40 years ago, kickstarted by the energy of a very special man, Pete Shelley.
Svenja and I take our seats on the top deck of the 52 bus for the short ride from Victoria Station to The Royal Albert Hall.
“I saw Sham at the Reading Festival in 1978…” booms a loud West Country voice. Four large, ruddy men in leather and combat jackets face inwardly occupying four double seats in front of us, relaxed like people on the final stretch of a long journey.
“…I was 13 years old, I knew all the words to all the songs…”
He has grabbed my attention and I tilt my head, my hearing ain’t what it used to be. This guy is the same age as me and I want to hear his story.
“…and Jimmy Pursey didn’t know the words to any of his own songs”.
Svenja is talking, the bus is noisy and I struggle to hear anything more interesting. Their conversation drifts onto other bands…and I hear “…Blah Blah Blah, Buzzcocks, Blah Blah, Pete Shelley, Blah Blah Blah, He Was Bent! Blah Blah…” I focus on the large necks and balding grey heads in front of me, faces red from the beer and sun. The word ‘Gammons!’ invades my mind, ticker-taping across the interior of my skull.
Tonight is a celebration of Pete Shelley’s life, the co-founder of Buzzcocks who sadly passed away in December and I’m a little saddened to hear this word “Bent!” I’m thinking of an entire generation of teenagers at the cutting edge of alternative culture, challenging conventional thinking and stereotypes, breaking down boundaries, standing together against the establishment, ‘a hundred good mates’ and all that. Is this what we’ve come to? Supping beer and…I stop myself.
The bus stops too, at the Royal Albert Hall and we begin walking round this huge oval edifice, searching for the correct door to collect our tickets.
The pavements are crowded and I’m trying hard to forget the necks on the bus, but I’m struggling to see anyone under 60 and I can’t help but eyeball all the old punks as I pass them, wondering on their politics, and I know I have to loosen up.
And then in affirmation that life is indeed good we see the familiar shape of Ray Gange, I instantly feel more comfortable, and the three of us chat warmly. I quiz him about the 2016 Clash movie, London Town with Jonathan Rhys Myers in which Ray reverts to type, playing a roadie.
I can’t help but notice Ray is eating chocolate éclairs and drinking coke.
I’m struggling with my diet and booze intake and can’t help think about my furred artery, envious, I decide to say nothing. The number of people wanting to chat to him and take selfies gradually increases and we say our farewells and head off, Svenja to the photo-pit and me to my seat.
The venue is most famous for an annual eight-week season of orchestral classical music culminating in a huge BBC orgy of jingoistic, imperial flag waving known as Last Night at The Proms, and I’m not completely comfortable.
In 1867, exactly 110 years before the release of Orgasm Addict, Queen Victoria laid its foundation stone in memorial to Prince Albert whose name is used most often in relation to male genital piercing, and fittingly tonight, Penetration open for Buzzcocks.
The two bands toured together in the early days and interestingly both recorded Nostalgia, the evening’s first song – Penetration for their debut LP Moving Targets and Buzzcocks for their Love Bites album, both released in the autumn of ’78. The Shelley-penned, Nostalgia is driving and melodic and shifts gear most beautifully.
This is a “…night dedicated to Pete…” announces Pauline Murray, and she takes a moment to reflects on their journey “…from The Roxy…”, the seminal but tiny London sweatbox where both bands played in 1977 “…to the Albert Hall…”, the pinnacle and temple of established British culture, and she wonders what Pete might be thinking from “…up there…”, “…quite a journey…” she sighs.
In a red frilled shirt and black brimmed hat, she shimmies across the stage flamenco style to Come Into The Open and Movement, her voice is strong and she has taken but the briefest moment to acclimatize to what must be a truly intimidating setting.
She steps out to the edge of the stage in front of the monitors commanding the moment, a true contemporary of Siouxsie Sioux and Styrene more than equal in vocal range and quality, a fact underlined as she enters that magical zone, throws her head back and delivers Free Money majestically to the heavens like she’s singing out to Shelley himself.
The hall is filling and the iconic Don’t Dictate kick-starts tonight’s mosh action, continuing with Shout Above The Noise a second offering from the excellent Coming Up For Air LP. It’s fitting too that they end on the immensely catchy Beat Goes On from their recent Resolution album, which featured original Buzzcocks drummer John Maher.
Three men and a woman from seats near me stand to chat as the crew clear the stage and I sit, trying to get a measure of this beautiful and immense building.
Surveying the sea of white faces and balding heads, I spot one guy with hair, fashioned into a Mohican consisting of about six or seven bright red spikes, about a foot long. I strain to guess his age, my eye-sight ain’t what it used to be but I swear he’s in his thirties.
I’ve almost forgotten about the necks on the bus and I’m thinking the ‘white working class’ is pretty fucking cool and it’s here in the Albert Hall, it made that same journey that Pauline made with Pete.
“I’m not a gay-boy, I’ve been married three times”, I look back to the three guys and the woman standing near me, I haven’t been listening to them.
His mate replies “Pete was married in the end, he was gay”.
The third bloke chips in “He was everything!”
A series of images of Pete in a variety of garb scrolls through my head, S&M, cowboy, traffic cop, Indian chief.
“Yeah!” acknowledges the three-times married man.
The woman is silent, and after a pause, one of the men engages her in polite conversation. I’m not listening, but I wrote it down.
All of a sudden the unmistakable guitar and drums of Animation heralds Skids. Jobo boxes, dances to take centre stage Rocky-esque, animated, enigmatic, in charge “…come on…lift the roof…” he commands and a man at the barrier who seems to have got a hold of a Penetration set-list waves it in the air, pristine and white, gaffa attached. The red spikes of Mohican man bob furiously back and forth, bending like plastic, always returning perfectly to the vertical. The energy in the hall has gone up several notches on the dial.
What a “…privellage…” Jobo tells us, urging us to “…rip the shit…” out of this place as Bruce Watson stabs Of One Skin into the air, bass, drums coming in too, urging the crowd further…resplendent!
I’ve seen the Skids a few times and I wonder if Jobo will do the “…shit dancing…” joke. He doesn’t fail us, and goes on to elevate us further: “You’re only 16 once and tonight you are again!” Charades, exactly “…what the Skids are about!”
Richard Jobson is a splendid orator and frontman. His repertoire of self-depreciating anecdotes is matched only by his slightly menacing ones. I like the ‘skids audition’ story where he confesses to getting the frontman job because he threatens the other attendees with violence if they didn’t “Fuck off!”
Tonight he tells the one where he warns Leo Sayer that he should be scared because “…a big crazy Scottish guy and his fat friends…” are gonna get him. Personally I think this one is a bit shit, especially when he mock sings Sayer for just a little too long that it becomes cringey, and then a bit longer.
The crowd boo him in encouragement, and I wonder if some of them agree with me, but he’s obviously been doing a lot of gym work and imagining the power of the punches that he might rain down on me makes me think I should keep my mouth shut. But his kicks don’t quite get the height they used to when he does his famous ‘Jobo Dance’, and I reckon I could out-run him. I wonder if he should replace some upper body routine with lower mobility, yoga might work!
Kings of the New World Order from their latest Burning Cities album is a hard hitting, poignant song following the big guitar and grooving formula that make Skids perfect for the stadium circuit. But few songs can compete with The Saints Are Coming building and dropping in perfect arrangement.
Jobo knows this and his emotive script is crafted to help us reach this same conclusion about the song they wrote when “…we were kids…” He muses that many of us have “…never been here…” in this venue synonymous with “…Land of Hope and Glory…” and leads the crowd in a rousing chorus of “Boris Johnson is a wanker” who undoubtedly has been Working For The Yankee Dollar, again great showmanship and another great song that really works in a big venue. He reminds us that we are here to celebrate a “…Golden Era…” and pays tribute to Pete, before asking us to also remember Stuart Adamson another dearly departed member of the punk community and writer of the next song Scared to Dance.
“Sing with me” he urges and obligingly the crowd fill the air with Hurry On Boys and the haunting Whoa Oh Oh Oh of Lion In Winter. He has another anti-establishment pop, this time at the “…vile and disgusting scumbag men…” who permeated the music industry during that “…amazing and strange period…” when we were teenagers. People like Jimmy Saville and Dave Lee Travis who “…hated our music…” dedicating Circus Games to them.
As if it weren’t obvious Skids are absolutely nailing every minute, when he asks “Are you warmed up yet?” Crowd roars. “Thank you for not asking for the worst song that the Skids ever wrote”, he says. Plenty punks know the script and play their part perfectly, “Albert Tatlock” they shout, the whole hall joins in and the band oblige.
The roof does indeed lift especially when “Boris Johnson…what a wanker” is added to the list of Manchester’s favourite soap stars, the song medleys into Pretty Vacant which with five vocals on stage singing the chorus is pretty special, before Jobson shouts “God Bless Pete Shelley” and they switch seamlessly into What Do I Get. This writer has goose bumps and his eyes well when the crowd matches the stage volume singing the “Oh Oh Oh” chorus.
Masquerade is magnificent and the band rumble Into The Valley. The distinctive and adrenalizing bass intro somehow missing and I think ‘Ouch’, how did that happen, but the big red Mohican is bobbing furiously and the mosh is jumping. ‘Ahoy Ahoy’ sing the crowd and Jobo, chest out, is in that magical gap beyond the monitors, “Sing It” he calls, and oh do they sing it!
Watson’s solo dials the energy up even more notches, (no I’m not gonna say ‘eleven’). Jobo is dancing again, ‘The’ famous Jobo Dance, and the kicks are indeed full height. The song crescendos and begins to climb down, “Sing with me” he calls as the band look to each other and the anthem is brought to a close with just high-hats, audience and Jobo. His voice softens “Thank you so much” he says and Skids leave the stage with waves and hugs to the warmest applause.
“Well that was quite something”, says a Northern lady in a vintage dress as the audience subsides.
Everything tonight has a thoughtful and reflective element, a screen above the stage projects images of Shelley and Buzzcocks of all ages, from the beautiful to the bloated, badges, gig tickets, records sleeves, posters, photomontages, many designs by Linder Sterling, but what could be more appropriate than Richard Boon addressing the audience.
Instrumental in their early development, Boon co-wrote songs, organized gigs and started the New Hormones label which released their Spiral Scratch EP, a move which made Buzzcocks not only one of the first punks released, but spearheaded the DIY ethos of the movement.
Boon along with Shelley and Howard Devoto famously travelled to London to see the Pistols, inviting them to Free Trade Hall and kick-starting the Manchester scene in 1976, where Shelley would first meet Diggle.
We come “…not to mourn, but to celebrate…” he reminds us and graciously makes way for a short film from his old school-mate and co-founder of Buzzcocks Devoto before Paul Morley who wrote for three Manchester area magazines takes over the proceedings as MC.
Buzzcocks are out of the traps with Fast Cars, first track on the first album “…he’s up there in heaven, he’s watching tonight…” and straight into the magnificent Promises.
We’re “…playing to Pete in Heaven…” he says as Why She’s A Girl From The Chainstore comes to an end, a track I always thought showed Diggle’s Mod influence. Looking the part in dessie boots, white strides and spotted shirt, I can’t help thinking “Good hair…” as I glance across the sea of sparsity “…Steve Diggle has very good hair!” I stop myself from saying “…for a man of his age!”
He’s “…watching…” as they move effortlessly into Autonomy he shouts, clearly both emotional and excited as he bounces to all parts of the stage, up to the edge drinking in the audience who lap up all that is to be offered, here is tonight’s star.
They’re here for him, to share his pain, his excitement, the celebration of his friend, their joint achievements, the reflections of all in attendance, and the support is warm and obvious.
Our MC introduces the guests but the bespectacled, red beret and pink fur clad Captain Sensible has his own etiquette and announces himself with a fine “Ohh isn’t it nice in here!”
He has a shopping bag, he takes, out a song sheet, “How can you expect me to remember lyrics at my age?” he cries before launching into a spitting, anarchic rendition of Boredom, relishing every nasty nuance.
Prowling, tongue out, he steps out onto the edge in front of the monitors, mic stand above his head, an old hand in complete control. I’m sure his eyes flashed behind the circular shades as he snarled “…I’m already a has-been…” and all too soon he’s going.
“Thank you Steve…thank you Pete Shelley…wherever you are…you’re drinking champagne” he cries. A mic gets dropped, a roadie is onstage, the Royal Albert Hall is now intimate, it’s a gig, and Pauline Murray returns to stage with John Maher and fellow original Steve Garvey on bass to perform Love You More. It’s a splendid vocally soaring version “…until the razor cuts…” and she too is off all too soon.
Pete Perret comes on to sing Why Can’t I Touch It? in his fine voice, he seems a little frail for touring, and as the cacophonic guitar climax heralds the end of the song I wonder which replacement Shelley might recommend if he were indeed looking down. “…I’m sure Pete was really proud to have fans like you!” departs Perret to cheers and claps.
Bass drum and guitar introduce Fiction Romance, Maher and Garvey are still ‘guesting’ Diggle gobs. Richard Jobson joins the fray and performing finely, kicking, dancing again as the outro builds to those last three magnificent notes.
Next up is Vanian “Yeah!” he announces “Come On!” he calls out as the Garvey fires up the familiar hammering bass to Diggles guitar sweep and the rolling drums of What Do I Get?
I grin widely as Dave strides purposefully across the stage dressed in black with sunglasses and leather gloves, our favourite vampire punk Roy Orbison goth, heralding the guitar solo with “Take it away boys!” and calling out a “Yeah!” perfectly placed after the first guitar refrain.
My grin widens further and I imagine a fantasy world where the soundtrack to Vanian and Sensible’s everyday existence is punctuated by “Yeah!”, where they exclaim “Ooh isn’t it nice in here!” when they enter a room and I expect to hear “Nibbled to death by Okapi” some time soon. Vanian is on cue for the last verse like the veteran frontman he is, and the song draws to a close.
The screen above shows the distinctive yellow and red Anti Nazi League badge of the late ‘70s.
Diggle guides all his guests generously and hugs them all, Dave stays on for Something’s Gone Wrong Again which is perfect for him, his delivery and the relentless keyboard stabs remind me of MC5.
I spot a nervous frown, I see a lyric sheet, some ‘What’s happening?’ eye contact between Diggle and Maher who remains solid, expressionless, the song is held together by the veteran rhythm section who handle the hiccup like they ain’t had a break for 40 years.
Dave takes the sweet spot in front of the monitors and the crowd goes with him, veterans, all of them. I realize that there will have been minimal rehearsal time and credit is due to everyone both on and off stage tonight. The hug from Garvey is extra warm and Vanian takes his leave as if to say “Nice one mate”, “Seat of the pants there mate!” but they nailed it, it was special indeed.
Thurston Moore drowns Paul Morley with feedback as the latter attempts to introduce him, which can’t really be a surprise from the Sonic Youth co-founder and guitar master of noise and experiment.
There has been great anticipation of Thurston, but there’s a misfire as he counts in Times Up and Diggle takes control with a quick ‘Hold on!’ hand gesture and a “1-2-3-4”. The noise is indeed big, especially on Noise Annoys and the guitar chaos and feedback over the Shelley-penned melodic pop punk seems like an interesting idea and well received by the crowd.
Next guest is Tim Burgess, another interesting idea, one of the figure-heads of Manchester’s Baggy scene fronting one of the city’s seminal punk bands. My inner marketing man tells me this is a winner and vocally, Burgess nails the high pitched boyishness of Shelley.
There’s another misfire for the count-in, but vets M & G are back in control and Diggle relaxes, arm around Burgess as Sixteen Again rocks out.
Steve strums a chord for Burgess to find pitch. He stoops as if to hide his exposure, as he sings You Say You Don’t perfectly in tune, with the whole band joining on “…Love Me”.
He really does justice to the melody, and while he struggles with the high notes, demeanour, presence, and chemistry-wise, I think he’s tonight’s best voice for the job, if such a job were on offer.
The guests are finished and the band play out the last few numbers with Diggle on vocal, starting with his Top 40 composition Harmony In My Head loved for it’s distinctive gruff vocal. “I need your help” he shouts, and the crowd take the chorus perfectly for him.
The band delivers an extended breakdown version, “He’s in my fuckin’ soul”, Steve is emotional, jumping Townsend-like, “…never be forgotten…”, the mosh has fresh wind and Mohican man is bobbing away.
Orgasm Addict, he’s no longer the convivial host, he’s snarling, screaming, punk! I Don’t Mind the mosh is really mental.
As Steve sings the first verse of Ever Fallen In Love, Pauline Murray leads the guests back on, Burgess puts an arm around her, Sensible runs out to share the mic with Steve on the first chorus and soon the whole ensemble is dancing on stage to the finest pop song ever written by one man about another.
It’s almost over, the seated part of the crowd rises to it’s feet.
The final words are left for Pete’s wife Greta who thanks Raf Edmonds, the band’s long standing and hard working manager, and the fans, “Without the fans, there would be no band” she say and leaves the stage.
As the applause dies down and the hall empties I take a final look at the fine setting and the fans, the old punks who started this journey with Pete all those years ago.
They were all very young kids when homosexuality was de-criminialised in 1967 and of course the death penalty for homosexuality was last carried out during the reign of Queen Victoria the lady whose memorial holds this evening’s event, and who famously could not conceive that such a thing as sex between women could possibly exist.
Attitudes and mindsets take time to change, even when cultural sledge-hammers such as rock ‘n’ roll, hippy and punk smash down all sorts of doors, and Pete grew up in a society where being gay was dangerous.
He didn’t write or campaign with the demanding Glad To Be Gay ferocity of Tom Robinson, his songwriting was more subtle with the she/her/he/him pro-nouns strangely missing from his many love songs, until his 1981 solo single Homosapien was banned by the BBC for being explicitly gay.
But like Greta says, “…the fans…”, yes the fans loved him, his songs, his band, his spirit. Through those less tolerant days they grew with him, and these are those very fans here tonight…walking towards the exits. They can’t really be faulted for being less than comfortable saying “…he was into everything…” or “Gay- boy” when the correct word might be ‘Bisexual’. It’s a generation thing.
It’s also not quite right to define a person wholly by their sexuality, especially when Shelley’s energy and life force was so vital to the Manchester scene and tonight’s show has been held together largely by the skill of his songwriting. He was so much more.
I think about the Anti Nazi League image that was so prominent above the stage tonight, and I realize I was wrong to call the four necks on the bus ‘Gammons’, and although I only thought it, I wish I had chatted and had a beer with them rather than making assumptions about people who have made such a fine journey.
Please note: Use of these images in any form without permission is illegal. If you wish to use/purchase or licence any images please contact Svenja Block at [email protected]
All words by Phil Ross. This is Phil’s first contribution for Louder Than War.